Turf wars erupting all over the fest world

Programmers, sponsors slug it out

At this year’s Cannes, the official competition wasn’t the only rivalry to spark debate.

An explosion of new, stepped-up or reinvigorated fests has stretched the calendar nearly year-round, increasing the pressure on programmers, upping the competition for sponsors and making for weary travelers all around.

The biggest danger to festivals’ health “is film festivals themselves,” says Tomas Prasek, co-director of computer systems maker Datakal, whose wares are used at Tribeca, Thessaloniki and Pusan. “They keep proliferating and carving up the pieces of the pie in every territory.”

The calendar bulges with hundreds of fests — ranging from historical staples Cannes, Venice and Berlin to dozens of obscure upstarts appearing almost weekly, like Action on Film, which spotlights martial arts; and the inaugural Little Rock Film Festival, which just unspooled in the Arkansas capital last week. Everything seems to overlap. And the volume is being turned up by programmers packing suitcases of cash and racking up frequent-flier miles.

Turf wars are erupting all over the fest world, between Venice and Rome, Dubai and Abu-Dhabi, Tribeca and New York.

The biggest flash point is Italy, where the nascent Rome event, which created a stir last year with a star-laden, 80-film lineup, is waging an offensive against the 63-year-old Venice fest. Somehow wedging its mid-October dates into an already crowded fall calendar, Rome boasts a government-subsidized budget said to be in the range of $10 million, and has already nabbed Francis Ford Coppola’s “Youth Without Youth” for a slot at this year’s event.

Venice countered by indicating during Cannes it would have a lineup bulging with major American titles, with possible berths for “Beowulf,” Ang Lee’s “Lust, Caution,” Todd Haynes’ “I’m Not There” and Paul Thomas Anderson’s “There Will Be Blood.”

Still, some argue that for those able to navigate the turbulent new waters, there can be a payoff in terms of reputation.

The fest flurry “is in some ways a good thing,” says Thessaloniki fest director Despina Mouzaki. “It makes us more creative and causes us to better focus and differentiate ourselves from others.”

But the just-add-glamour rise of Rome has been destabilizing Euro fests that pride themselves on discovering new filmmakers — places such as Mouzaki’s Thessaloniki or Locarno, for example.

“The situation is not the same since (the) Rome fest began,” says Frederick Maire, now in his second year as artistic director of Switzerland’s Locarno fest. “We are a French-speaking festival in an Italian-speaking area, so we are near to Italy culturally and economically.”

Locarno’s recent claim to fame was hosting “The Lives of Others,” where it won the audience award, the first kudo of an eventual Oscar-winning run.

The issue, simply put, is volume. As festivals multiply, the films, sponsors and talent get spread ever thinner.

Last year’s inaugural Rome fest reportedly dangled big bucks to lure “Fur,” along with star Nicole Kidman, to the Eternal City for a splashy premiere.

But, paradoxically, both the Venice and Rome fests failed as promotional platforms on their home turfs; Italo box office actually plunged following both events, partly due to exceptionally sunny weather. And “Fur” also fizzled elsewhere at the B.O.

“People say these megafestivals are giving chances for more films to be shown,” says Richard Pena, programmer of the New York Film Festival for the past 19 years. “But the original movement to give film a sense of identity as an art form has been lost in some cases.”

The New York fest has arguably changed the least of any old-guard event, offering just 24 films each year since its founding in 1963.

This year’s Cannes, in its 60th year, was brimming both with new discoveries (such as Romania’s “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days”) and establishment winners (the Coens brothers’ “No Country for Old Men”).

And Venice, undaunted by upstart Rome, is gearing up for a high-profile edition, its 75th and possibly the last headed by Marco Muller.

“Now that Rome has its mayor flying to L.A. to meet with studio chiefs, we should enlist Culture Minister Francesco Rutelli — who is on our side — to do the same thing on our behalf,” says Muller.

(Steven Gaydos in Los Angeles and Nick Vivarelli in Rome contributed to this report.)

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